United States Census Bureau

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Date: 2014
Document Type: Agency overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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United States Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau collects data on the quality of life of the United States citizens and the state of the economy. There are two types of U.S. Census Bureau programs: economic and demographic. Most widely known for its data collection on the United States population and housing every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau also collects data every five years on the economy and government. The economic, agriculture, and government censuses taken every five years comprise more than 98 percent of U.S. economic activity. Data on U.S. foreign trade are also collected by the Census Bureau.

The data collected are used in many different ways, including allocation and planning. One of the most important is that the population and housing data collected each decade are used to determine the number and location of congressional seats in the House of Representatives. At the federal level, census data are also used to distribute federal funds to local governments. Many state and local governments use the data to identify their legislative districts. The census data are also used by local governments to identify and plan where roads may be built, to determine school district boundaries, or to determine the distribution and location of public health care facilities. A second area of service by the U.S. Census Bureau is providing age-related data from its population census. The federal government uses Census Bureau data to plan and budget for Social Security and other age-related government benefits and federal programs.

The first census of the U.S. population (censuses had been conducted in the 13 American colonies as well) was taken in 1790, as ordered in the U.S. Constitution. The census was carried out by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. It was used only as a head count, and only classified the population by age (over 16 or under 16 for white males), race, and sex. The first censuses were taken by local census takers, who asked only a few basic questions, then tabulated and reported the results locally. This simple process became more complex and the questions more detailed as the country grew and the value of the data became more known by both political and business leaders. Today, the Census Bureau conducts over 200 surveys.

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In the early days of the census, U.S. marshals were responsible for collecting information. They had no training on what information to gather and no recording forms, or even schedules on when to conduct the census. In 1879, part-time trained census takers were hired to replace the marshals and conduct the 1880 and subsequent door-to-door censuses. The U.S. Census Bureau began using mail questionnaires beginning with the 1960 census. Today, census takers are only used for remote areas, special circumstances such as shelters and soup kitchens, and nonresponse follow-ups. The 2010 census was the first census in which the census takers used hand-held GPS devices.

The census expanded its information gathering in 1810 to include economic data such as manufacturing and products being produced. In 1840, it expanded again to include gathering data on additional economic sectors of agriculture, fisheries, and mining. The 1850 census data expanded even further to include for the first time demographic data on taxes, church attendance, and crime. With each additional census, the amount of data collected continued to increase. The U.S. Census Bureau became a permanent agency of the federal government by an act of Congress in 1902, and was located in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As a permanent government agency, the U.S. Census Bureau greatly expanded its data-gathering abilities through the twentieth century. During the twentieth century, the Census Bureau significantly expanded its ability to accumulate economic information. It created three new surveys that continue in use today: the American Housing Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the Survey of Income and Program Participation. These new programs go far beyond the historical decade population survey.

Not only was the Census Bureau expanding its date-gathering capabilities, it was leading the world in technology innovation. The U.S. Census Bureau was the first nonmilitary government agency to enter the computer age. In 1950, the census that year was tabulated by a UNIVAC I computer, one of the most modern, fastest computers of its time. The global positioning systems (GPS) we now enjoy in our cars and cell phones are directly attributed to the cartographic innovations of the U.S. Census Bureau through the 1970s and 1980s. Census data-gathering has grown from neighborhood walks and local surveys, from computer tape and CD-ROMs, to the Internet.

The U.S. Census Bureau headquarters are located in Suitland, Maryland. The bureau also has 12 regional offices, in Atlanta; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Detroit; Kansas City, Kansas; Los Angeles; New York; Philadelphia; and Seattle. The president appoints the Census Bureau director with confirmation of the Senate.

David A. Dieterle

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Further Reading

Trethan, Phaedra. N.d. “The U.S. Census Bureau: Counting Heads and Then Some.” U.S. Government Info, About.com. Accessed June 3, 2014. http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/censusandstatistics/a/aboutcensus.htm .

United States Census Bureau. N.d. “Home Page.” http://www.census.gov/ .

United States Census Bureau. N.d. “State and County Quick Facts.” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html# .

United States Census Bureau: American Fact Finder. N.d. “Community Facts.” http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml .

Resources for Teachers

United States Census Bureau. N.d. “Home Page.” http://www.census.gov/ .

United States Census Bureau. N.d. “Statistics in Schools: For Teachers, Teaching Resources.” http://www.census.gov/schools/for_teachers/ .

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6140900165